Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Archaeological Dig For the Lost Jewish Synagogue/Temple of Alexandria is Now a Go

It took me over a year to convince my friend Harry Tzalas to investigate the possibility that the fabled Jewish synagogue of Alexandria might be located deeper in the water than his discovery of the Martyrium of St. Mark. He sent divers down last month investigating a strange formation he had noticed some time ago. The waters were very rough (they almost always are in this part of the Mediterranean). His divers told him it might just be a 'natural formation' but they took some photos anyway. We just looked at the photos and now my friend has written me back:

I have been thinking about the submerged terrace west of the Chatby Casino. There is no doubt in my mind that it is related with the structures that stood on what was considered to be St. Marc Martyrium.

I thought about the possibilities of having a thorough survey of this area. Because it is an area exposed to the winds and swell it cannot be surveyed using zodiac type crafts -- to properly use an airlift we need a more stable boat of at least 20 m in length.

If it is your belief that the Martyrium is related with the Alexandria Synagogue please let me have as much information as possible.

He has gotten approval from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt to sound if a survey with a dual aim: The Martyrium and the Synagogue. Now we need money. Harry thinks he can get the funding but I want to bring something to the table too. This is going to be a big discovery, my friends. I can't promise that I am right about anything or everything. The first part of my response to Harry's question of the location synagogue is as follows:

It's late over here and I was just about to go to sleep but there are a number of reasons why I would locate the synagogue there. The most obvious is in Philo's Flaccus where the great synagogue is (a) located near the water and (b) close enough to the official residence that the Jews who are standing in front of the closed synagogue can hear the horses come to arrest him on the other side of the walls.

Here is reference (a) from Philo:

And when they had spent the whole night in hymns and songs (i.e. outside the locked synagogue), they poured out through the gates at the earliest dawn, and hastened to the nearest point of the shore, for they had been deprived of their usual places for prayer, and standing in a clear and open space, they cried out, "O most mighty King of all mortal and immortal beings, we have come to offer thanks unto thee, to invoke earth and sea, and the air and the heaven, and all the parts of the universe, and the whole world in which alone we dwell, being driven out by men and robbed of everything else in the world, and being deprived of our city, and of all the buildings both private and public within the city, and being made houseless and homeless by the treachery of our governor, the only men in the world who are so treated. You suggest to us favourable hopes of the setting straight of what is left to us, beginning to consent to our prayers, inasmuch as you have on a sudden thrown down the common enemy of our nation, the author and cause of all our calamities, exulting in pride, and trusting that he would gain credit by such means, before he was removed to a distance from us, in order that those who were evilly afflicted might not feel their joy impaired by learning it only by report, but you have chastised him while he was so near, almost as we may say before the eyes of those whom he oppressed, in order to give us a more distinct perception of the end which has fallen upon him in a short time beyond our hopes." [Flaccus 123 - 125]

My interpretation of (b) is supported by van der Horst (Philo's Flaccus: the First Pogrom). I am just grabbing this English translation off the web but it is old and inaccurate. Van der Horst's is better (you should read the original Greek for the proper nuance). Remember the description of the Jews 'hearing' what was going on in the royal palace continues throughout even when they are standing outside the locked synagogue:

And they (the Jews) thought that this was to try them, and was not the truth, and were grieved all the more from thinking themselves mobbed, and that a snare was thus laid for them; but when a tumult arose through the city, and the guards of the night began to run about to and fro, and when some of the cavalry were heard to be galloping with the utmost speed and with all energy to the camp and from the camp, some of them, being excited by the strangeness of the event, went forth from their houses to inquire what had happened, for it was plain that something strange had occurred. When they heard that Flaccus had been arrested and was already ensnared within the hunter's nets, they stretched out their arms to heaven, they sang a hymn, and began a song of praise to God, who presides over all the affairs of men, saying, "We are not delighted, O Master, at the punishment of our enemy, being taught by the sacred laws to submit to all the vicissitudes of human life, but we justly give thanks to thee, who hast had mercy and compassion upon us, and who hast thus relieved our continual and incessant oppressions." [ibid Flaccus 120, 121]

The point is that the Jews have all gathered at the large synagogue and are continuing to hear what's going in the royal palace even as they stand in front of the locked door.

Van der Horst writes "One may assume that Philo reports this from his own experience for he may have heard 'their shouts and galloping horses'"

The point is that Philo was intimately connected with the synagogue. You have to find a place that was (a) right on the water and (b) close enough to the walls that you hear everything. It also has to be away from buried dead bodies owing to Jewish religious prohibitions.

When I get up I will go through my reasons for connecting the location of the synagogue with the Martyrium. For the moment here are my friend Birger Pearson's reasons for identifying the Martyrium with your location (although he doesn't know you)

There can be no doubt as to its location. According to the account in the Acts of Mark “in the eastern district” (10) “beside the sea, beneath the cliffs” (5) But since some confusion was introduced by Jorge Juan Fernadez Sangrador it is useful to take up his arguments in light of the evidence

A description of Sangrador’s argument follows:

Sangrador acknowledges that the Martyrium of St. Mark was located in the northeastern section of the city but argues that the earliest seat of the Alexandrian community, the area of Boukolou was located in the Rhakotis district in the southeastern section, near the ancient Serapeum.

Pearson disposes of Sangrador’s arguments based on the reference to ‘herdsmen’ noting that:

Strabo’s reference to herdsmen is of no use, however for Strabo mentions boukoloi in connection with other areas of Alexandria and the Delta as well.

Pearson then emphasizes once again that the Acts of Mark identifies the martyrium of St. Mark as the Church in the Boucolia. Then he moves on to the Passio Petri Sancti and concludes:

The topographical references in this account matches those of the Acts of Mark with additional amplifications. Ta boukolou, where the Martyrium of Mark was located is specified as a suburban area, but also near the sea. There are also tombs in that area. The tombs in question are clearly those now known as the Shatby Necropolis (fourth-third centuries BCE) part of the eastern necropolis that had been covered over during the city’s eastward expansion and no longer in use by the first century … There can be no doubt as to the location as to the area our texts refer to as to boukolou. By the fourth century, after massive destructions suffered by the city in the second and third centuries, this area was a suburb, located well outside the city. It could very well have been used for cow pastures (if that is what ta boukolou means). The cliffs referred to in the Acts of Mark are probably one of the hillocks that rose inland from the seacoast east of the city in the area around Shatby, long since obliterated by the cutting and filling associated with the construction projects in the modern city of Alexandria but known from old maps.

The bottom line is that I will develop a case tomorrow regarding why we should expect the martyrium to be located near the synagogue. In the meantime consider this strange fact. Severus of Al'Ashmunein says quite explicitly that there was only one Church in all of Egypt until the end of the third century. Eutychius writes that there was only one bishop until Demetrius "He was the bishop, according to the tenth-century annalist Eutychius who appointed other bishops, for the first time, in the land of Egypt" {1957:II.385; a Latin translation from the original Arabic of the Annals, by Eutychius, the Melkite or Chalcedonian patriarch of Alexandria [877-940, from 935; cf. ODByz II.760 (SHGriffith)], is presented in Patrologiae Graeca CXI columns 907-1156, with this specific reference at column 982; cf. column 989}.

There was a sizable Christian population in Egypt already at the end of the second century. The image that comes forth is a very centralized religion where pilgrims had to come into the Boucolia on holy days. It would also necessitate a rather large building.

It is difficult to say anything definitive about the Jewish synagogue/temple or the Christian Church of St Mark in the period. The Jewish temple/synagogue of Egypt was not destroyed in the first Jewish War. There are references to its continued existence in the early second century. One might suppose that it was destroyed in the Jewish revolts of the Trajanic period but who knows. Maybe it was taken over by Christians. There are many examples of this. Maybe the first Church of St. Mark was built on top of the synagogue. But where did the money come to finance such an enterprise? One would think this real estate would be quite valuable and already occupied.

I will give better reasons than this but the most likely scenario in my mind is that it was the original site of the Jewish synagogue and it may have been taken over by the Christians at some point either with a new construction or taking over the old building.

It is worth noting that the Jewish building has been accurately described here in Levine's book on ancient synagogues.
Anyway glad you've come around. Let's think about the best way to approach this. Sometimes as I am sure you would agree, you have to be able to talk out of both sides of your mouth for different people.

Jewish synagogues were often located near bodies of water. It's the natural place (let's not forget that the Imperial powers would like to keep the troublesome Jews under the watchful eye of the governor too!) The palace in Alexandria proper as I recall is literally looking down at this area.

For those who would like to put some money up for the expedition (I have no idea how any of this works so I just want to see if I can interest right now, no taking any checks right now) I will show you the PDF's of the underwater site.  If someone can tell me how to turn PDF's into photos I can post here I would love to hear from you!

Email with comments or questions.

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